The bass guitar has evolved quite a bit since the 1960s and 1970s. While many other instruments, like the violin, have an extensive history and accepted methods of playing, the bass guitar does not. This means that beginners can do pretty much anything they want and it wouldn't necessarily be wrong. That said, let's cover some of the more standard methods of playing bass guitar.
The bass guitar usually has four strings. These are tuned in 4ths, starting with a low E, going up through A, D, and G. Current trends have many players with five strings (add a low B), six strings (add a high B or C to that), or seven strings (add a high E to that). Of course, there are many other tuning options available to expand the possibilities. Experiment and see what you come up with. For the sake of this entry, we'll stick with a four string bass in a standard tuning (E, A, D, G) played in a right-handed position.
The left hand is in charge of telling the bass which note to play. This is done through a series of frets - the wire things running across the neck. Your standard bass will usually have about 20 of these (read on for more about the fretless bass). Each fret marks off a semitone (1/2 step) but as music theory will not be covered in this Entry, we'll pretend you already know all about that.
Anyway, the left hand will indicate which note the bass should play by pressing down on a string slightly behind the chosen fret.
The right hand handles telling the bass how to play the note the left hand has selected for it. There are many schools of thought on this subject.
Early bass players favoured using a plectrum (pick) to strike the bass strings, much like a guitar player would do. This is very popular with speed metal players who want to play very fast and even. Picking gives the note a sharper attack and generally allows the bass player to remain more consistent in tone and volume.
Probably the most common method of playing the bass is to pluck it with the first two or three fingers of the right hand. Players who have made the switch to bass guitar from a traditional upright double bass would probably favour this method. This allows the player to maintain more control over varying tone and volume.
Slap and Pop
1980s Funk Metal introduced the world at large to Slap and Pop, although fans of funk/R&B were already quite familiar. Slap and Pop involves varying combinations of slapping the string with the ball of the thumb and popping the string by giving it a sharp pull with the index finger. This method can be very difficult for the beginner, but a practiced hand at Slap and Pop can be capable of eye-popping bass acrobatics.
The bass can also be strummed, much like a guitar. When done higher up on the neck - and therefore higher up the musical register - this can produce some lovely tones. Lower down the neck (lower down the register), strumming can get a little muddy, but it's a good way to really fill out a song. This is also popular in the garage/thrash/noise pop arenas, for an aggressively strummed bass is a thing of beauty; assuming, that is, you consider gut-wrenching walls of noise to be beautiful.
This involves using both hands to cover each hand's job. With either hand, the string is tapped forcibly enough to both fret and produce the note. By alternating between several fingers of both hands, tapping allows many, many notes to be played in a short amount of time. Much like Slap and Pop, tapping requires quite a bit of practice before anything really listenable will come out of the bass guitar.
Learning to Play
The beginner is well advised to start with picking or plucking. Other styles may well be adopted later. Practice playing scales starting at different fret positions and different strings. In addition to the more common major and minor scales, learn to play other types such as the pentatonic scale, which uses five notes to play the octave, and is based around a minor chord. The pentatonic scale is sometimes called the blues scale, because the notes in it are used a lot in blues riffs.
At its simplest, a bass accompaniment can just use the main notes of the chords that the rhythm section is playing. For example, if they play a chord of C, the bass player can play the note C and get away with it. For variety the bassist could also play the C note followed by the note either above or below in the chord. It follows from this, then, that the bassist has quite an advantage if he/she can understand simple guitar chording.
Learn to play without using open strings where possible. Although not essential, this will be really handy if you have to play in a different key.
Listen to bass lines in other music. Most ragtime, for instance, has a steady bass line played with the left hand on a piano that is relatively easy for a bass player to pick up. Some early country and western, especially bluegrass, also has easy to follow bass.
A lot of more intricate bass work involves something that the lead guitarist may already be doing called 'runs over chords' - basically this is just playing scales, arpeggios, riffs within a chord shape. It's easier said than done.
As with any other instrument, there are countless books that purport to teach bass guitar. One that has been recommended by a number of bass players is called Progressive Bass Guitar for Beginner to Advanced Students1.
Learn by Example
To hear some examples of what happens when you happen to be born with a lot of talent and then practice the above methods for a long, long time, check out recordings by:
Tony Levin (solo, King Crimson, Peter Gabriel, and more)
Geddy Lee (Rush)
Sara Lee2 (Ani DiFranco, Indigo Girls, and more)
Chris Squire (Yes)
Victor Wooten (solo, the Flecktones, and more)
Sam Rivers (Limp Bizkit)
Hiro Yamamoto (early Soundgarden)
Jaco Pastorius (all sorts of jazz recordings)